Public/Global Health

Researchers: Satellite images hint coronavirus started in China earlier than first reported

Researchers at Harvard Medical School say that satellite data and internet search traffic indicate that the coronavirus pandemic began in Wuhan, China, months before authorities alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) about the virus.

Study authors told ABC News that analysis of data from as far back as October of last year indicated a surge in vehicle traffic around hospitals in the city, a spike that coincided with a rise in internet search traffic for “certain symptoms that would later be determined as closely associated with the novel coronavirus” from residents of the city.

“Something was happening in October,” Dr. John Brownstein, the study’s leader, told ABC. “Clearly, there was some level of social disruption taking place well before what was previously identified as the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic.”

“What we’re trying to do is look at the activity, how busy a hospital is,” Brownstein said. “And the way we do that is by counting the cars that are at that hospital. Parking lots will get full as a hospital gets busy. So more cars in a hospital, the hospital’s busier, likely because something’s happening in the community, an infection is growing and people have to see a doctor.”

Chinese authorities, who have been criticized by the Trump administration for their response to the coronavirus outbreak, alerted the WHO in late December that an unknown virus was spreading throughout Wuhan and other cities. U.S. officials have contended that China was slow to provide information about the virus, and have accused the WHO of shielding China from criticism.

“We can confirm that the Chinese Communist Party did all that it could to make sure that the world didn’t learn in a timely fashion about what was taking place,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in May.

“President Trump has been very clear. We’re going to hold those responsible accountable, and we’ll do so on a timeline that is our own,” he added.

Brownstein cautioned to ABC that his team’s research was not the final verdict on China’s response to the virus and that more studies were needed to determine the exact date and origin of the coronavirus.

“This is all about a growing body of information pointing to something taking place in Wuhan at the time,” he said. “Many studies are still needed to fully uncover what took place and for people to really learn about how these disease outbreaks unfold and emerge in populations. So this is just another point of evidence.”

Tags China Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Harvard Medical School Mike Pompeo Wuhan

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